US President Donald Trump has put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of overseeing the construction of the border wall as de facto project manager, reported The Washington Post on Monday.
Kushner has been convening biweekly meetings to receive updates from government officials about progress on the wall, including contractor data, the specific location of its sections and how funding is being channelled.
Trump’s son-in-law has also been conveying the president's demands to the group, the publication cites anonymous officials familiar with the matter as saying.
After Kushner took control of the project, he reportedly elevated the regular meetings to executive-level gatherings at the White House requiring the attendance of Cabinet-level officials.
Kushner has talked with other officials about securing money for the wall, to the point of mentioning using military construction funds again.
On 21 November US President Donald Trump signed a short-term spending bill to stop the US government from shutting down, buying the administration more time to negotiate billions of dollars in funding for the US-Mexico border wall.
The short-term spending bill, which is also known as a continuing resolution, was signed by Trump just hours before a deadline that would have caused federal agencies to shut down.
Trump's directive to "take the land"
According to Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan, Kushner has been asking detailed questions about specific parts of the project in the meetings, which often stretch more than an hour.
Kushner is said to have been pressuring US Customs and Border Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers to speed up acquisition of private land along the US-Mexico border to expedite matters – one of the issues that has been slowing down progress.
"There are very real concerns. We're being sued on a regular basis on multiple fronts. Land acquisition is a very, very challenging process. We're trying to become more efficient and get more done. There are real challenges," Morgan said.
Kushner is reportedly hoping to get 450 miles of barriers put up before the 2020 election, yet more than 800 filings to seize private property would be required for this, reported the Post, citing anonymous sources.
The president's son-in-law has set a goal of 30 to 35 miles of new barriers per month by spring, requiring crews to average a new linear mile of fencing every day.
"The point is to get as much built in the next year so the president can say in the face of intense, almost demented opposition he has made reasonable progress," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that seeks to restrict immigration.
According to Mark Morgan, Kushner, who has adopted a more “hands-on” approach to the matter, has expedited decisions on land acquisitions and construction issues and was key to “bringing everyone together in the same room”.
"He doesn't need to know the intricacies of the wall. He understands building stuff. He understands timelines," Morgan said.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, was quoted as saying:
"My hope is Jared can put a more laser focus on the project and the process. Maybe he can light a fire under the responsible agencies, but if recent history is any indication, he will get frustrated before he gets results."
Senior administration officials reportedly told the Post that Kushner has attributed lack of progress in the wall's construction to former chief of staff John Kelly and former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Kushner is said to have clashed with officials who questioned some of his novel suggestions, such as installing web cameras to live-stream construction.
For their part, former officials have said Kushner displays a lack of specific knowledge of issues pertaining to the immigration debate.
Kushner's previous dubious results in tackling a plethora of responsibilities have made him the target of criticism, as since the start of the Trump presidency, he had been entrusted with striking a Middle East peace deal, overseeing trade policy issues, and dealing with criminal justice reform.
Trump’s campaign pledge
The US President has been frustrated with a lack of tangible progress in one of his top priority projects as he heads into a tough re-election campaign, according to current and former administration officials.
Donald Trump campaigned in 2015 on a promise to construct a wall along the entire 3,150-kilometre-long Mexico border to stop illegal migrants from crossing into the US and crack down on crime.
He also vowed to make Mexico pay for the project. Yet the country denied those terms.
After Democrats gained a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term election, Trump found himself incapable of securing the $5.7 billion he said he required for the barrier to be built.
Despite major setbacks when differences with Democratic lawmakers resulted in a month-long partial shutdown of government agencies, Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border three weeks later in a move that enabled him to divert military funds toward the wall project.
In his Twitter feed and public remarks, President Trump regularly touts the “great progress” in construction of the barrier.
On 15 November CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters that 78 miles (125 kilometres) of new border wall had already been built, yet later acknowledged it was actually 78 miles of replacement wall for "an existing form of barrier."
Morgan added that workers have begun breaking ground in areas of the Rio Grande Valley where there is no barrier in place.
In recent months, the project has picked up momentum in Western states, where crews are able to build on remote desert land already controlled by the government.